Sunday, 31 May 2009

McGoohan in my Mind - Ruminations Upon An Enigma From Long Ago

If anything demonstrates the over-weening arrogance of fans of The Prisoner mucking about with the episode order of McGoohan's meisterwerk, it is surely putting this brilliant pece of allegorical theatre into any position other than it's carefully selected placing, just before the two-part denouement of this uniquely inventive series. The piece begins with a sequence of vignettes illustrating that many of the apparent central tenets of the show to that point are merely means to a dramatic end. Hence we have a number of mild parodies of secret agent cliches.

Interestingly however some of these are quite inventive, demonstrating the respect McGoohan retained for the milieu in which he had risen to international prominence in 1967. A number of shows are probably referenced: certainly The Avengers, which was by this time preminent in the secret agent genre, but a show in which imaginatively silly self-mockery was a large part of its appeal... or should that be a Peel............ The sex appeal, or should that be a Peel that had so far often been absent in The Prisoner comes to the fore, with the delicious legs of Justine Lord mesmerising the viewers as the girl who is death sets about her mission. Mission Impossible is another show mildly mocked as the Holmesian British agent receives his recorded instructions, but rather than self-destruct, the recorded message talks back to our hero. And so the show must go on.......... and on and on it goes through a funfair... a veritable Amusement Park...........

The skilful use of Narrative, often the strongest suit of the noir days of Danger Man in the earlier 1960's, resets the mood as our hero enters the deadly warehouse. Against a background of cleverly circumvented puzzles the deathly girl explains the paradoxes we face.......

You are a born survivor. I am a born killer.

Is your heart pounding? Your hand shaking?
That's Love my darling.

Don't let silly pride stand in your way.

One or two Jams (sic) Bond references had been apparent as the hero emerged from the steam bath, dressed in his deerstalker outfit, much as Bond strips off frogmen suits and is dressed in an evening suit underneath. The escape with the bulldozer also preempts many movie tricks as the hero uses the spade to create himself a veritable tank, but perhaps the most telling allegory was the automatic Bren Gun scene. This directly mirrored a closing scene in the final Japanese adventures of John Drake, when a ludicrous machine gun pops out of the uber-villains desk, in Shinda Shima. Clearly gutted by the direction Sidney Cole was taking his beloved show, McGoohan famously walked away from it. Fan legend has it that this whole episode "The Girl Who Was Death", was derived by Everyman co-producer David Tomblin from an unshot episode of the Danger Man series that never was. The bren gun scene is perhaps Mcgoohan's pointed riposte that if the likes of George Markstein (the new script editor on the final two episodes of Danger Man to be filmed) had thought he could turn McGoohan's beloved John Drake into the utterly crass secret agent so favoured after 1965.... well he had had another think coming and it was Goodnight George........

And so into the final scenes, which were vital to McGoohan's story-telling, containing as they did the introduction to the Chamber stylisations that would ultimately host Fall-Out, and indeed the Chaplinesque battle with the Napoleonic forces almost prefigures the more violent Pantomime still to come in the conclusion, not to mention the notion of a Rocket.... So why was this episode so important? Why was this episode so carefully constructed and placed where it was?

Any serious viewer will see the significance immediately. This was the theatrical announcement of the classic theatrical actor.......... This was McGoohan's dismantling of the Fourth Wall.

And that is how I saved London from a mad scientist

Goodnight Children

and then Number Six looks at us, through the figure of Number Two and adds....


And so, we now know that what we have seen has been a story..... a show..... it was never meant to be real..... There is no Village -pretend or otherwise...........


Brilliant. As always McGoohan's method is crystal clear to anyone willing to see, but those who choose to look the other way will always see something else. As McGoohan once remarked about The Prisoner himself,

"I had a chance to do something nutty, so I did",

and it seems just like McGoohan to use such under-stated modesty to deflect the idle TV-goggler from noticing his instinctive and inventive genius. He made that glib and self-mocking comment some fifteen or more years after he had made The Prisoner. At the time he made a carefully constructed TV series that hangs like a beautifully-tailored jacket would have done, from the shoulders of John Drake. Because it was so evidentially beautifully crafted he never felt the need to defend its cut or style from the yammering fashionistas who have since stabbed at his elegantly booted ankles with their puny dwarf daggers of zany venom and bile. His were the Shoulders of a Giant.......

Many Happy Returns Number Six

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your breaking of the fourth wall idea.
    There are also a couple more mundane points.
    In a story (treating The Prisoner as one story for a second) you want to get the obvious ploys out of the way early. It would be absurd to have an attempted boat escape or crude attempt to break No.6 so late in the day. The momentum has to build and this episode would have to come in it's original position, or at least very close to it, for the weirdness to be on an upward trend before the final two-parter.
    If you are writing a story with an extraordinary ending you try to prepare the audience. Here we have the reinforcement of the idea that The Prisoner is not going to be a conventional spy story with a logical ending, but we are given the safety net of "it's only a children's story". It's easing us towards an ending where we won't explicitly have that safety net.